REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with Pakistani leaders here Thursday in a bid to secure their help in facilitating peace talks with Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban leaders.
Karzai's visit comes as momentum for talks aimed at ending the now 10-year-old war in Afghanistan is slowly picking up steam. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Karzai said the U.S. and Afghan governments have begun secret talks with the Afghan Taliban insurgency. In recent months, U.S. officials have been meeting with Taliban envoys to discuss the establishment of a Taliban office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, declined comment on the report. Previously, the Taliban leadership has dismissed Karzai as a "puppet" and publicly indicated willingness only for talks with the Americans and the West.
However, a member of the Karzai-appointed body set up in 2010 to try to begin negotiations with the Taliban, Haji Musa Hotak, said that position has changed.
"The Taliban have stopped insisting on talking to the U.S. and not the Afghan government," he said. "Now the Taliban are saying they are ready to talk with the Afghan government face to face. They said they will talk to both Americans and the Afghan government."
On Thursday, Karzai held separate meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari. He is also scheduled to participate in three-way talks with Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who also arrived in the capital on Thursday.
Ahmadinejad's meetings with Pakistani leaders are expected to center on plans for a pipeline that would send Iranian natural gas to the country. Though the U.S. opposes the idea because of concerns over Iran's nuclear program, Pakistan has signaled its intent to move ahead with the proposal.
With Kabul and Washington pushing for peace talks, Pakistan is regarded by both capitals as a major obstacle in the process. Afghan and American officials maintain that Pakistan's intelligence community continues to actively support Afghan Taliban insurgents.
Washington has long claimed that top Afghan Taliban leaders remain based on the outskirts of the southern Pakistani city of Quetta, and that the biggest threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban wing known as the Haqqani network, continues to benefit from havens in Pakistan's volatile tribal areas along the Afghan border.
Pakistan's links with the Haqqani group date back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Pakistan's primary spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence backed the group's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and other resistance fighters.
Experts say Pakistan views the militant group as a key asset in a post-U.S. Afghanistan to prevent nuclear arch-rival India from extending its influence to Kabul. Pakistan's military leaders continue to regard India, and not Islamic extremists, as their main nemesis. Pakistan denies that it supports Haqqani militants or provides them sanctuary.
Afghan officials also suspect a link between Pakistani intelligence agents and the Sept. 20, 2011, assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was selected by Karzai to lead negotiation efforts with the Afghan Taliban. Rabbani was killed at his home when a man who said he was a Taliban emissary detonated a bomb hidden in his turban as the two men met.
Pakistani leaders have adamantly denied the charge. On Thursday, Zardari said Pakistan recently sent an investigation team to Kabul to assist Afghan officials in the investigation into Rabbani's slaying. A statement issued by Zardari's office said the president told Karzai that Rabbani "was a friend of Pakistan and an honest and serious interlocutor," and called the assassination "the work of those elements who do not want a peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan."
While in Pakistan, Karzai was also scheduled to meet with several leaders of the country's influential religious parties, including Maulana Samiul Haq, regarded as the spiritual father of the Taliban. Haq operates an Islamic seminary, located in northwest Pakistan, where several Taliban leaders once studied. Haq is thought to maintain close ties with the Taliban.
-- Alex Rodriguez. Laura King in Kabul contributed to this report.
Photo: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, shakes hands with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, in Islamabad on Thursday. Credit: EPA / Pakistani Press Information Department